CounterPunch / September 15, 2023
The opening line of Decolonizing Palestine: The Land, the People, the Bible says it all: “For Palestinians, including the Palestinian Christian community, Palestine is a real land with real people.” It seems self-evident, but in a time when more people are in love with some majestic idea of Israel/Palestine rather than the real Israel/Palestine, it needs to be reiterated. This short read debunks many falsehoods that have taken root in parts of the Christian community over time and have been kept alive by constant watering by the State of Israel and the Zionist movement.
This latest contribution to the body of knowledge on Palestine/Israel reads like an intellectual hand grenade – an argument in a steel encasing, divided into bite-size pieces of the core elements of the Palestinian’s struggle for justice and freedom. When this unique publication is released, it will witness an impact bound to spread far and wide, causing disarray in many corners of the Church.
Who wrote and is throwing this incendiary device into the discourse? None other than Dr. Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian public figure, pastor and theologian, author, social entrepreneur, and friend.
Dr. Rev. Raheb is a one-of-a-kind Palestinian. He is the Founder and President of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem and co-founder of Bright Stars of Bethlehem in the USA. A widely published Palestinian theologian, Rev. Raheb served as the senior pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem from June 1987 to May 2017 and as the President of the Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land from 2011-2016. Among other involvements, he is a founding member and author of Kairos Palestine.
As he states at the outset, “This book is not the theoretical exercise of a theologian living in an ivory tower. The issues at stake in this book pose an existential question to the Palestinian people in general and the Palestinian Christians in particular.” This framing is crucial given much of what is written today on the topic is by authors who barely have any experience with the land and people, if at all.
In this “first attempt to bring settler colonial theory in dialogue with Palestinian theology,” Dr. Rev. Raheb joins a growing cohort of analysts attempting to advance a new paradigm on this longstanding and deteriorating reality of Palestinian dispossession and military occupation. In its four chapters, the book cleverly intertwines history, theology, religion, and politics into a single quilt that radiates hope and a future worth living for both Israelis and Palestinians.
The first chapter, “Settler Colonialism, Palestine, and the Bible” explores these three subjects and how they relate as he briefly surveys 100 years of history. Dr. Rev. Raheb does not mince his words, nor does he attempt to ride the latest terminology bandwagon, such as Apartheid. Instead, he returns to the basics and “argues that the situation prevailing in Palestine since the Balfour Declaration is one of settler colonialism”.
He places the U.S. right where it belongs, front and center in the ongoing oppression of Palestinians. He writes, “President Trump was aware that settler colonialism is deeply entrenched in American culture, especially through the ideology of Manifest Destiny. When the United States looks in the mirror, it does not see itself, but rather, Israel. And when it looks at Israel, it sees itself: both are settler nations who occupied the lands of native peoples and pushed those people into small reservations.” These sentiments are not applied to Trump alone, but to every sitting U.S. president.
Contrary to popular belief, it was not Jewish Zionists who were the source of this tragedy, but Christians. “[W]hat was a theological construct started to become realpolitik in the age of the British Empire thanks to three prominent Christian Zionists within the British establishment: Shaftesbury, Churchill, and Balfour.”
Dr. Rev. Raheb explains, “Anthony Ashley Cooper, known as the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, was a prominent figure in the evangelical Anglican movement and a member of the British House of Commons.” He continues, “Shaftesbury expressed in his diary his idea of a settler colonial project in Palestine more bluntly: ‘… There is a country without a nation; a nation without a country.”
Thus, the myth that Palestine was “a land with no people, for a people with no land” was born.
What’s in a name ?
Dr. Rev. Raheb correctly claims that “Naming is a means to exercise power, to claim dominance over land and people, and it constitutes an important aspect of settler colonial projects.” He gives live examples of how things are named by those in power to erase the downtrodden Palestinians. The most prominent of these naming examples is the name of the land itself. He writes with footnote references:
The oldest name of the land was Canaan. This ancient name referred to Southwest Asia, an area covering today’s Palestine, Lebanon, and the western parts of Jordan and coastal Syria. The continuity of the Canaanite population is traced by scholars back to the eighth millennium BC.[…]
The Old Testament does not shy away from calling the land by its ancient name of Canaan, and its inhabitants as Canaanites, on over 150 occasions. The biblical text testifies to the advanced culture of the “land of milk and honey” (Joshua 5:6).[…]
The Palestinians of today are not the Canaanites, but Canaanites are without doubt part of Palestinian ancestry.[…]
While the Assyrians, already under Ramses III, used the name in the form of Pilishtu to describe the coastal region of the land, it was the Greek historiographer and cartographer Herodotus (ca. 484–425 BC) who recrafted the term to become Palaistin, referring to the entire land, including even Transjordan. With the exception of Canaan, no other name for this land but Palestine has been used continuously for almost 2,500 years, up to the present day.[…]
The Palestinians of today are not the Philistines of the Bible, although the Philistines are a feature of Palestinian ancestry.
Dr. Rev. Raheb places Israel within the lineage of settler colonialism throughout history. When he writes, “The distortion of history and the instrumentalization of the biblical narrative by Zionism and Zionist Christians have dire consequences for the Palestinian people” he speaks as a scholar of the sacred texts and someone on the receiving end of those using the Bible as a baton.
Within this global worldview, he observes that “With the Bible as their weapon, settler colonialists demonized indigenous populations while glorifying colonization as the civilization of the savage. Israel is no exception to this pattern and must be understood within this context of European settler colonization. When we talk today about land theology, we cannot ignore the European history of colonization or shy away from the colonialist reception history of the Bible.”
Because Dr. Rev. Raheb is fully aware that he lives in today’s world, he correctly declares that “No one should be allowed to use “biblical rights” to violate human rights; not Jewish settlers, Israeli politicians, or naïve Christian theologians.” Furthermore, he is spot on to advise that “It is time to listen to the narrative of the native people of the land. Palestinian Jews belong to the people of the land, and followers of the Jewish faith have been part and parcel of the region throughout the last two millennia. But settler colonial Zionists are not part of the people of the land. They are invaders and subcontractors to the empires.”
In a powerful overview of what we read in the Bible, or any of the holy books for that matter, Dr. Rev. Raheb notes, “Like the bazaar in the Old City of Jerusalem, one can find many different ingredients in the Bible. There are texts that sanction colonization and texts that promote liberation. What we discover says more about us and what we are searching for as readers than about the Bible itself.”
The chosen few
The final chapter of the book takes head-on the concept of the “Chosen People” as a justification for colonializing Palestine. Before laying out his analysis, Dr. Rev. Raheb summarizes the thoughts of three prominent Palestinian figures from three different Christian denominations: the Anglican theologian Naim Ateek, representing mainline Protestant theology; Father Paul Tarazi, a Greek Orthodox theologian; and the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah. “Biblical election,” as Dr. Rev. Raheb terms it, is a particular challenge for Palestinian Christians.
To paraphrase his take on “biblical election,” he asserts that “We human beings in this world have no business determining who is or who is not chosen, or who is chosen and who is rejected. This is God’s business. It does not mean that this does not happen. It occurs in the Bible, it has occurred over and over again in history, and it is taking place today. When this occurs, it is a sign of human and religious hubris that has no place in the realm of faith. Such hubris has more to do with ideology than with theology.”
In Dr. Rev Raheb’s words, “This book is an urgent call to decolonize Christian theology regarding the Palestinian land and its people, to understand Israel through a new paradigm of settler colonialism, and to contribute to the struggle for liberation, human dignity, and justice.”
The book is full of knowledge and is a must-read if you are serious about addressing the root causes of the historical injustices perpetrated against to the Palestinian people, the land, and the Bible, not to mention Christianity itself.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant and frequent independent political commentator from Ramallah/Al-Bireh in Occupied Palestine